Hey, big shots, it’s time to care for vets

Saturday, July 21, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:44 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

To President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and members of the House and Senate:

You’ve all been shocked — shocked to discover the care some of our wounded soldiers received was substandard.

You’ve been dismayed at reports that severely injured veterans have had to wait months to be certified as disabled or they’ve been turned down cold because they couldn’t prove they had been in combat.

You’ve been horrified that not enough mental health professionals are available for the men and women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and that all too often the Army is mistreating troops suffering from the disorder. (Sen. Kit Bond is looking into that.)

But what did you expect?

What did you expect when you weren’t prepared for so many casualties — or such severe ones? As of June 29, the number of wounded from Iraq alone was 26,350.

What did you expect when expenditures on veterans’ benefits have failed to keep pace with inflation? You’ve closed veterans’ hospitals and failed to take care of the veterans from the previous wars, let alone this war. Then you flood the system with thousands of freshly injured men and women.

Now not all of them were severely injured. Some had relatively minor wounds, recovered and returned to duty. But many are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and there aren’t enough mental health professionals to serve them, whether they’re in or they’re out of the service.

And then there’s this matter of disability benefits. This might be a difficult matter for you representatives and senators to understand. You folks don’t give up your seat no matter how ill you become. (To borrow from our friends at the NRA: “You’ll take my voting button when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”) But our veterans don’t have jobs like yours where someone is always ready to do the thinking for you. Besides, if they’ve been disabled by their war injuries, don’t they deserve to be compensated — now?

According to The Washington Post, one notable person to be turned down was Jeans Cruz, who helped capture Saddam Hussein. He had the medals. He had post-traumatic stress disorder. He was turned down for disability for lack of proof he had been in combat. Huh?

In this age of computers, why is it so difficult for soldiers such as Cruz to come up with such proof? Why are there delays in processing? Shouldn’t a click of a mouse be enough? Why should the process be complicated? It’s as if the system’s set up to discourage soldiers from claiming the benefits that are due them.

The president put capable people in charge of studying veterans’ health care problems: Donna Shalala and Bob Dole. Their report is due any day and will call for big, big changes.

The price tag will be big, too. Linda Bilmes of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government released a study in January that figured the cost of providing medical care and disability benefits to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at $350 billion to $700 billion. Pretty big range.

Considering you’ve already spent $610 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, for war-related expenditures, and you’re pouring in $12 billion more each month, if you stopped right now — which you won’t — it would cost as much to take care of the injured as it has to wage war. I wonder if you would spend that kind of money to repair all that damage.

But here’s Plan B: Adopt a Vet. That’s right, each of you adopt veterans, add them to your gold-plated insurance policy, take them under your wing, let them enjoy the many benefits you’ve enjoyed as a result of your position.

Mr. President, you may want to focus on national guardsmen. Mr. Cheney, any branch of the service will do. You two, and a whole lot of your colleagues on the Hill, are going to make a bunch of money after your terms of office are over — something these men and women haven’t a hope in Halliburton of ever seeing.

Wouldn’t it be nice to share the bounty with them and show your appreciation for the people who fought the war you started?

Seems only fair to me.

Mary Lawrence teaches editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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